Avondale Estates officials defend hiring police chief who shot unarmed man
This story has been updated.
Elected officials in Avondale Estates are defending a decision to promote an officer who shot an unarmed man to be the city’s next police chief.
The officer, Lynn Thomas, was cleared of wrongdoing after a civil grand jury recommended presenting the case to a criminal grand jury. But that was not the end of the matter. Thomas and former police chief Gary Broden are both named in a lawsuit against the city seeking $15 million in compensation for the family of Jayvis Benjamin, the unarmed black man Thomas shot and killed in 2013.
In March, the District Attorney’s office said it had concluded the shooting was justified. Thomas, who has been with the city’s police department since 2002, did not return calls seeking comment.
Patrick Michael Megaro, the attorney for Benjamin’s mother, Montye, said he had never heard of an officer being involved in an incident like this getting a promotion.
“I know how cynical I might sound. I’m disappointed, but not surprised,” he said. “I can’t sum it up any better than that. After 15 years of practicing criminal defense and civil rights law and especially given what’s a national story in the media about police misconduct, very little surprises me any more.”
He said he had spoken to Benjamin’s mother.
“She’s really just kind of shocked and she feels hurt. To her it’s a slap in the face,” Megaro said. “It looks to her as if the town of Avondale Estates is telling this officer, ‘Job well done. We’ll give you a promotion for killing Jayvis Benjamin.’ That’s how she views it. I think you could see any parent would probably see that way too.”
Two groups that have been involved in protests against police shootings – Rise Up Georgia and NAACP Atlanta Branch – did not return messages seeking comment.
Three members of the City Commission are defending his hire, saying Thomas was selected after reviewing a number of applications.
“I couldn’t be prouder that he is our police chief,” City Commissioner Brian Fisher said. “He’s been in our community for a long period of time. He’s well thought of by the residents. No one here has given us any negative feedback on Lynn.”
When asked whether the city considered the 2013 incident when making its decision, Fisher said, “[Thomas] didn’t do anything wrong. He acted appropriately based on the law and what was happening at the time.”
Commissioner Randy Beebe said the 2013 incident and subsequent investigation is proof of Thomas’ resiliency.
“He was tested under fire,” Beebe said. “They came out and found … that he did nothing wrong. For me, for a man to be put in that position and to have done nothing wrong, it’s more of an accolade than a concern. I think it would be dishonorable to punish him.”
Mayor Jonathan Elmore said Thomas was the best candidate for the job.
“[City Manager Clai Brown] did a search and there were a number of candidates and he and others thought the best choice was officer Thomas and we didn’t disagree,” Elmore said. “He is a good guy. He is a great officer. He’s been with us for 14 years. The other officers have a great deal of respect for him. We agreed with Clai that he was the best guy for the job.”
Decaturish asked whether the city had considered the lawsuit against Thomas when making its decision to promote him.
“He’s been cleared by everybody,” Elmore said. “Anybody can file a lawsuit against anybody. He has been cleared by the GBI, the FBI, the court. He defended himself, and you know, that’s that. No one wanted that to happen, officer Thomas least of all, but … we stand by our decision. It’s Clai’s decision, but we agreed with it, and we stand by it.”
Decaturish asked Brown whether Thomas had been disciplined by the city over the shooting.
“The incident was investigated by the City’s Internal Affairs division, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, the DeKalb County District Attorney and several outside experts, and all determined the shooting was justified,” Brown said. “Further, the DeKalb County District Attorney stated, there was ‘no evidence’ of wrongdoing by Sergeant Thomas. There were many considerations in the hiring process. A comprehensive review of all applicants was performed to determine the most qualified individual. There was no justification to discipline Sergeant Thomas for his actions on January 2013.”
Brown said there were 12 applicants for the job.
The city’s decision not to discipline Thomas was cited in the lawsuit against him.
“An internal affairs investigation into the incident was completed without any discipline imposed against defendant Thomas,” the lawsuit says. The lawsuit claims that former police Chief Gary Broden never recommended any discipline or training for Thomas.
Benjamin, who was unarmed, allegedly stole a car then attacked an officer after crashing into someone’s yard. The lawsuit says Benjamin was injured as a result of the crash and exited the vehicle.
“At no time did Jayvis Ledell Benjamin make any sudden movements or gestures that could be interpreted by defendant Thomas as aggressive or threatening nor did Jayvis Ledell Benjamin say anything that would cause defendant Thomas to fear imminent bodily harm,” the lawsuit says.
The incident report maintains that Thomas refused orders to stay in his vehicle.
Decaturish asked Elmore if he believes that Thomas will run a department that treats everyone fairly, regardless of race.
“Absolutely,” Elmore said. “If I didn’t, I wouldn’t have agreed to it. I haven’t known Officer Thomas that long, but he is a really good person and I do believe he treats everyone fairly. Have I worked with him on a daily basis? No. But I have gotten to know him somewhat and he’s a fine person.”
Here is a copy of the lawsuit filed against the city by Benjamin’s family.